Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Go East!

Estonia – today’s hot destination

Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia

The enjoinder used to be: “Go West young man!” but today’s entrepreneurs and holidaying adventurers alike are heading in the opposite direction – to China and the Far East, of course, but also, somewhat closer to home, they’re finding exciting opportunities in Estonia and the other now independent Baltic states of the former Soviet Union.

It’s often said that there are lies, damn lies and statistics but behind the often-misleading raw figures astute analysts can usually identify valuable truths. The Eurozone might seem on the brink of meltdown but while you can still find pockets of Eastern Bloc style grim poverty, unlike most members of the currency union, tiny Estonia has done remarkably well from its Eurozone membership. There’s a boom in construction, and that’s a good sign, and the tourism infrastructure is now first-rate and is generating an ever-increasing flow of visitors.

Since the country’s 1994 economic blip, caused by the Russian financial crisis, general income and living standards in Estonia have climbed remorselessly – even while neighbouring economies have stagnated or even declined. The result is that Tallinn – the capital – has become one of Europe’s hottest destinations.

A role as self-proclaimed ‘Gateway to the West’ has enabled this beautiful city to metamorphosise from a sleepy and remote regional capital into a vibrant international hub where it’s now as easy to find a pint of Guinness, Japanese sushi or Italian pizza, as it is the potent local Vana Tallin Liköör.

With few natural resources, Estonia’s biggest asset is its people – and those people include not only native Estonians and the thousands of Russians who stayed on after the Soviet collapse but ever-increasing numbers of students and young business people attracted from around the world to live and work in what is a rarity in Europe these days – a fast-growing and truly exciting international centre for work, culture, entertainment and night life

It’s a country of just 1.36 million that is closer – in language and culture – to Finland, just across the Baltic Sea, than it is to its next-door neighbour, Russia.

Billing itself as ‘Where mediaeval meets modern”, Estonia espouses cutting-edge technology. Its citizens carry an identity card that they can use to take care of multiple functions. In a country that has never had cheques, they can even use the card to vote, to pay for parking, and fines too, and to settle their income tax: “We’ve jumped straight from cash for everything to electronic banking,” they’ll tell you proudly.

This is the country where Skype was invented and which can boast of 120 mobile phones per 100 head of population, while Wi-Fi is even available on buses and trains as well as in nearly every café and bar – yet you don’t have to venture far into the verdant and unspoilt countryside to encounter wolves and bears.

It’s not only a great place to live and work in but also an enticing weekend-break or short holiday destination, for a hen or stag do or for a family vacation.

With a thousand-year history, Tallinn is a former Hanseatic League port with a strategically important location that led to Estonia being invaded and occupied many times down through the centuries.

The country enjoyed brief independence from 1919 to 1941 when it was seized first by Nazi Germany then, at war’s end, by the USSR.

The current spell, from 1991, is now the country’s longest ever period of self-determination, EU membership and NATO protection having brought a long awaited sense of real security.

Tallinn’s prime visitor attraction is its romantic old town, set atop a wall-girdled hilltop overlooking the busy harbour. It’s something of an illusion however as the area was flattened by a Soviet air raid in 1945, later being painstakingly rebuilt, stone by stone, brick by brick.

Latest attractions are guided tours of the underground bastion passages and the superb new Seaplane Harbour museum, complete with marine and aviation artefacts that include one of the first seaplanes and a full-size former British submarine. And then there’s a fascinating visit to the spooky old KGB spy listening room atop the Sokus Hotel Viru.

Tallinn’s a small place, highly walkable, easy to get around, but if you tire of city life, travel an hour out of town to the wonderful Vihula Manor Hotel & Spa ( www.vihulamanor.com) – a haven of peace and tranquillity set beside an unspoilt national park. Like Estonia itself, this lovely property is a happy marriage of ancient tradition and cutting edge modernity – and it’s British run.

Set in 50 hectares of beautiful parkland alongside the tranquil Mustoja River, in the heart of the Laheema National Park, and four kilometres from the Baltic Sea, this 16th Century estate has two main buildings and 25 other historic buildings which have been lovingly converted to create a luxurious holiday spa village with 65 superbly furnished guest rooms and suites plus such amenities as a large indoor pool, exercise gym, a shop selling local products and even its own vodka distillery.

Nearby attractions include the elegant Sagadi Manor, with its fascinating forestry museum, and he historic fishing villages of Juminda, with its delightful cottage gardens, and Käsmu, whose recorded history dates back to 1453

Specialist operator Regent Holidays (020 7666 1244; www.regent-holidays.co.uk) offers a six-night Estonian trip that pairs three nights at the Radisson Blu in Tallinn with three nights at Vihalu Manor for £625 pp. on a B&B basis with two sharing. The same operator has a three-night city break in Tallinn from £350 pp, with B&B accommodation at the three star St. Barbara Hotel.

For more on Estonia, read the ‘Bradt Guide to Estonia’ by Neil Taylor.

Why visit Estonia?: enjoy a happy Baltic blend of ancient tradition and cutting edge modernity

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